Cast Away

Stephen LemonsFebruary 20, 2020
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Former United States Senator Jeff Flake at his home in Mesa.; Photography by Steve Craft
Former United States Senator Jeff Flake at his home in Mesa.; Photography by Steve Craft

Jeff Flake sacrificed his political career to defy the GOP and President Donald Trump. So why is this man smiling?

Seated in the midst of his still-unfurnished single-family home in Mesa, a cellphone to his ear, Jeff Flake is speaking to someone about the economic situation in Cuba as his wife of 35 years, Cheryl, apologizes to a reporter for her hair looking a mess. 

It doesn’t look a mess, by the way, but she does seem a bit harried. Which is understandable, given the Flakes just moved into this modest dwelling in a gated community, having returned home to the East Valley from Massachusetts, where the couple had been living while the former U.S. Senator taught a course at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government during the fall semester.

Flake’s smile is as white as the blank walls of the open living, dining and kitchen area he’s in. He nods, indicating that the phone conversation is nearing an end. Mrs. Flake darts off to another room. A young man, one of Flake’s five children, briefly emerges with a power drill, then disappears. The drill buzzes in the background intermittently.

Flake, free from his call, seems unperturbed, relaxed, the very picture of suburban sangfroid, dressed in gray slacks and a blue-striped shirt, the collar open and the sleeves rolled up. It’s late November and the weather outside is mild and sunny, not unlike Flake’s disposition.

No wonder: He and his wife – now officially empty nesters, with youngest child Dallin graduating from Mountain View High School in 2018 – escaped Harvard just as the temperature was nudging into the 30s, with the “spring” semester still to come in January. “They call it spring, it’s really winter,” Flake says. “Who are they kidding? But the fall is gorgeous there.”

The theme of the course was of Flake’s making, and right up his alley: the future of conservatism, or if there is one. He drew heavily on his 2017 book, Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.

In it, Flake denounced the “Faustian bargain” he believes the Republican Party made with President Donald Trump in 2016 in order to take the White House, abandoning its conservative principles for what he calls “the sugar high of populism, nativism and demagoguery.” Rejecting the politics of anger and resentment that he claims Trump represents, Flake calls upon his party to return to the ethos of his political predecessor and mentor, Barry Goldwater, whose 1960 manifesto laid out the basic tenets of the modern conservative movement and lent Flake’s tome its title.

Such sentiments led to Flake’s early criticism of candidate Trump, but unlike some other never-Trumpers, Flake refused to modify his stance and make amends with the leader of his party. Instead he doubled down, alienating GOPers loyal to Trump and Trumpism, and leaving him, at one point, with an 18 percent approval rating among Arizona voters, according to left-leaning Public Policy Polling. Facing a primary likely to feature pro-Trump firebrand Kelli Ward and the vigorous opposition of the president, Flake tapped out, announcing on the floor of the Senate that he would not run in 2018 because he could not be “complicit or silent” as Republicans gave in to “the impulse to scapegoat and belittle.”

Labeled a turncoat by the Trump faithful and sneered at by many on the left for not doing more to undermine the president – and sidelined on the eve of what promises to be an explosive 2020 election season – Flake presents an intriguing question mark. Is he the leader in exile of a rehabilitated GOP, ready to leap back into action if U.S. politics swerves back toward the moderation and prudence he favors? Or is he a Trump troll, casting criticisms into the ocean from his private deserted island – one not unlike the South Seas atolls he visited for his well-publicized survivalist adventures?

Or is he just another comfortably semi-retired Arizonan, avoiding too much sun, making a little scratch here and there in the industry he knows best?

At this enormously uncertain juncture in U.S. history – as this issue went to press, Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate had not yet reached its culmination – it’s a sound bet Flake himself doesn’t know the true answer.

The Man from Snowflake

Flake does not dwell on the regret and sadness of leaving the world’s greatest deliberative body, though he says he had hoped to spend two terms in the Senate before retiring. At the moment, he’s still basking in the afterglow of Harvard, where he had friends George Will and Mark Cuban come in to speak to the grads, undergrads and other members of the university’s community who attended the seminars.

But he does share one parting memory from his last night in office, right before the new Senate was sworn in, featuring a prominent Democrat and erstwhile basketball buddy.

“I got a call about 10 at night,” he says. “It was President Obama, just saying, ‘Hey, I just wanted to say thanks for working with me on the Cuba stuff.’ I had a good working relationship with him.”

Flake in the midst of his first U.S. Congress campaign in 2000, balancing his youngest son, Dallin.; Photo courtesy Flake family
Flake in the midst of his first U.S. Congress campaign in 2000, balancing his youngest son, Dallin.; Photo courtesy Flake family

It’s the sort of tale bound to make a right-winger’s head explode. Though the Trump administration has reined in the decision to re-open diplomatic relations with Cuba, Americans can still travel there, and Flake continues to advocate for tourism and increased economic ties to the pariah island nation. Free trade helps the Cuban people attain “a modicum of independence from their communist government,” Flake says, getting wonky.

Flake traveled to Cuba with Obama in an official capacity and did the same when the president traveled to Africa, the only Republican on the latter trip. Though Flake opposed Obama on several policy fronts, GOPers never forgave him for shooting hoops with the “Baller in Chief” back when the White House sponsored regular pickup games for the president and invited politicians and celebs to suit up. “The basketball playing friend of Obama,” Flake smiles at the memory. “I did it once. I would’ve done it a lot more if I’d been invited.”

That was while Flake was a congressman from the East Valley who earned the bipartisan enmity of his colleagues for opposing Congressional earmarks for pork barrel spending on local projects. Like many things in his political life, he did it out of principle – because he believed earmarks were wrong. In his book, he relates how he opposed earmarked spending for a pet project of then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Flake’s efforts led to a moratorium on Congressional earmarking.

Flake with fellow U.S. Senator John McCain in Washington, D.C., 2013; Photo courtesy Flake family
Flake with fellow U.S. Senator John McCain in Washington, D.C., 2013; Photo courtesy Flake family

This mixture of ideological consistency and political comity is born of Flake’s childhood as a scion of Mormon pioneers who founded the northern Arizona town of Snowflake, where he grew up on his family’s F-Bar Ranch. There, he helped raise cattle and alfalfa, losing part of one finger to the blade of a windrower as a kid.

As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, his heritage is also marked by a healthy skepticism for the power of government. In Conscience, Flake recounts how his great-great-grandfather did six months of hard labor at the territorial prison in Yuma as a result of his religious beliefs. Flake recalls how “we as a people had fled a government back East that wanted us dead due to the ‘alienness’ of our religion,” noting the infamous “extermination order” issued in 1838 by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs against LDS members, which was not formally rescinded until 1976.

Alongside such ancient memories of persecution is the intriguing bipartisanship imposed by the LDS in the late 19th century, when church leaders would visit congregations and arbitrarily announce, according to Flake, that “Those sitting on the left are Democrats and those sitting on the right are Republicans.”

The Flakes west of Snowflake’s Main Street would be GOPers and those east of it, Dems, writes Flake of the church’s edict. And there are still Democrat Flakes due to this early bifurcation, “who are always up for a good argument at family gatherings.”

The lesson, according to Flake, was that, “before we are members of a party, we are people.” Such wisdom served him well when the Brigham Young University-educated Flake, with his B.A. in international relations and his M.A. in political science, interned in the offices of Democratic Senator Dennis DeConcini. Despite this “scarlet D” on his otherwise solid Republican resume, Flake went on to land a job as the executive director of the Goldwater Institute, where he would work with his idol, Barry Goldwater, and meet such constellations in the conservative firmament as Margaret Thatcher, Jack Kemp, William F. Buckley Jr. and Milton Friedman.

Flake with his wife, Cheryl, after announcing on the Senate floor that he wouldn’t run for re-election, in 2017; Photo courtesy Flake family
Flake with his wife, Cheryl, after announcing on the Senate floor that he wouldn’t run for re-election, in 2017; Photo courtesy Flake family

By the time a Congressional seat opened in what was later to become Arizona’s Sixth Congressional District, Flake was a golden boy in conservative circles. He handily won the election, and the deeply red district gave him the freedom to pursue a lively Goldwater brand of Republicanism with its traditional devotion to smaller government, lower taxes and free trade.

Following nearly a dozen years in the House, Flake found an opportunity to level up with the retirement of Arizona’s junior Senator Jon Kyl, and Kyl’s near-anointment of Flake as his successor. Flake made mincemeat of his opponents in the 2012 Republican primary and overcame a strong Democratic contender in the general election, former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, by 3 percentage points.

At 50, the charismatic Flake might’ve served in the Senate for several decades, had it not been for the highly idiosyncratic political career of a certain flashy real-estate mogul from New York.

town hall in 2016; Photo courtesy Flake family
town hall in 2016; Photo courtesy Flake family
The Trump Detour

On December 18, the U.S. House voted along party lines to pass two articles of impeachment against Trump: the first, alleging that Trump had abused his power by holding up $391 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine until that country announced an investigation into former Vice President Joseph Biden, and into a discredited theory of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election; and two, for obstruction of Congress in the impeachment inquiry.

Few people imagined any kerfuffles when it came to the Republican majority in the Senate acquitting the president. Nevertheless, Flake had made a provocative statement in September to the effect that if the vote in the Senate was held in secret, “at least 35” Republicans would vote to remove Trump from office.

“I was being conservative,” Flake says, with that eternally toothy grin of his.

the famous “hostage” photo with President Donald Trump, in 2017; Photo courtesy Flake family
the famous “hostage” photo with President Donald Trump, in 2017; Photo courtesy Flake family

Uncertain of the trial’s outcome at the time of this interview, Flake hopes for an outcome for the president short of removal. His “preferred option,” given that the election is less than a year away, is to let the voters decide whether to boot Trump or not. “I think what he’s done could be considered an impeachable offense,” Flake says. “A variety of things that he’s done. But the Constitution doesn’t require that that remedy be used.”

Flake says he agrees with Democrat and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that, “given what popped out of the whistleblower complaint” alleging a quid pro quo sought by Trump in regard to Ukraine, “there was no way you can’t look at it.”

A “resolution of censure” would be a better bet, Flake suggests, allowing the electorate to later reject Trump and send him packing. “I don’t think he should be reelected. But I’m concerned that if he is impeached and not removed, it emboldens him in the election, he claims vindication.”

Flake is also leery of the martyr effect that could follow in the wake of a presidential ouster. “Then you’d have a permanently grieved population that would seek to disqualify the next president rather than defeat him or her in the next election,” he says. “That’s not a cycle that we want to get into. Too many countries are in that cycle. It’s a bad deal.”

For his part, Flake believes Trump will lose the general election. He not only wants to see the Republic survive, but the Republican Party, too. And for that to happen, he thinks the GOP must face a rout at the polls in 2020 with Trump at the top of the ticket.

“It’s not guaranteed,” he admits. “But it’s the best scenario for Republicans en masse to say, ‘We went down a bad detour for a while, and now let’s get back to who we are.’”

Flake was no Johnny-come-lately to the anti-Trump faction. In 2015, he was one of the first GOPers to denounce Trump’s nativistic tendencies. Trump’s border wall to be paid by Mexico? A “joke,” Flake says.

When Trump wanted to rally in Arizona with Sheriff Joe Arpaio in July of that year, Flake – at the time, about halfway through his six-year term – unsuccessfully lobbied the county party not to host the event. “I don’t think that Trump’s views are reflective of the party… particularly in a border state,” he told The Washington Post.

Things only got worse, beginning with Trump’s proposed “Muslim ban.” Flake countered by addressing an Islamic religious center in Scottsdale – this, about a week after 14 people were killed in San Bernardino, California, by ISIS-inspired radical Islamists. He started with a quip about how he bet the congregation probably never expected to see “a Mormon speak at a mosque.” He went on to tell the assembled that Trump’s rhetoric “was not in keeping with the values and ideals that have made this country a shining city on a hill.”

In his book, Flake talks about being a pro-immigration Republican along the lines of Ronald Reagan, the president who used to invoke the “shining city on a hill” as a metaphor for an America teeming with immigrants, and who also signed the 1986 amnesty, bringing 3 million people out of the shadows.

In Conscience of a Conservative, Flake tells of working side by side as a boy with Mexican laborers at his family’s ranch in Snowflake, at a time when the border was less militarized and the mostly male migrants came and went “with relative ease.” Periodically, the Border Patrol raided the F-Bar, rounding up the undocumented, sometimes sending government Cessnas to scour the alfalfa fields from above.

When that happened, the young Flake would don a hat, mount his steed and ride decoy, trying to divert the Border Patrol planes from the field hands. Later in life, the value of immigrants to this country was driven home to Flake yet again, when two doctors originally from Afghanistan and Palestine would work overtime to save his aged father-in-law’s life.

Trump’s attitude toward immigration is one of many things that sparks indignation in Flake. There’s also Trump’s cavalier attitude toward foreign relations, Trump’s reliance on tariffs and deficit spending, and the president’s crassness, on Twitter and off. Little wonder Trump triggered such disdain in Flake, an intellectual who can quote T.S. Eliot, F.A. Hayek and The Federalist Papers from memory.

As for the idea among some Republicans that questioning Trump is akin to treason, Flake doesn’t cotton to that. “Presidential power should be questioned continually,” he writes in the book, adding, “Besides, I’m from the West. Questioning power is what we do.”

Into the Cauldron, Then Out

Other early Trump detractors had more success transforming themselves into dutiful followers after the 2016 election: namely, Republican Senators Benn Sasse of Nebraska and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But Flake – with two years left in his Senate term – never flagged in his opposition to Trump, refusing to back him as the nominee, avoiding the 2016 GOP convention like a Wuhan wet market and vowing to “keep speaking out,” until Trump changed the tone of his campaign.

The enmity between the two men never dissipated. Trump savaged Flake as “weak” and soft on immigration. Behind closed doors, Trump threatened to raise $10 million to defeat Flake in a primary.

Flake in shirtless survivor mode, in 2009; Photo courtesy Flake family
Flake in shirtless survivor mode, in 2009; Photo courtesy Flake family

Flake’s book was released in July 2017. He told NPR that he and his publisher, Random House, kept it under wraps, even from his own staff, apparently out of concern that, with a reelection year before him, the “political world” would tell him to “keep quiet, don’t take a risk.”

For veteran GOP political consultant Chuck Coughlin of HighGround Public Affairs, this detail says a lot about Flake the man. “I’m like, ‘You’re kidding me,’” he laughs. “Nobody on staff knew he was writing a book? That speaks more to the policy guy, the think-tank guy… A deep thinker, [Flake] could write you a book on free enterprise, write legislation, but not great people skills. Not great at reading people.”

Similarly, Republican strategist Nathan Sproul of Tempe’s Lincoln Strategy Group, sees Flake as a classic political idealist, with little appetite or talent for realpolitik. “He really does not do life in shades of gray,” Sproul says. “And because of that, I think it was difficult for him to look at the Trump presidency and say, ‘I’ll compliment him on these, you know, 60, 70, 80 percent of things I agree with him on, and then, you know, not be happy with him on the other things.’”

Flake’s distaste for “the other things” inevitably led to his emotional speech on the floor of the Senate on October 24, 2017, when he rejected the president’s “reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior” and announced that he would not run for reelection.

swinging from a vine on his LDS mission in Africa, circa early 1980s; Photo courtesy Flake family
swinging from a vine on his LDS mission in Africa, circa early 1980s; Photo courtesy Flake family

The decision resulted in a series of events wherein a less telegenic Republican politician, Martha McSally, lost Flake’s Senate seat to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema. It’s a performance that many pundits believe McSally, now senator by appointment, is poised to repeat in 2020, when she’s expected to go head to head with Democrat Mark Kelly, the astronaut husband of former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Like Sinema before him, Kelly has carved out a middle political road for himself, leaving McSally nowhere to go but right – into the arms of the president.

For Flake, it was a dance he couldn’t perform. “I knew I would have to stand on a campaign stage with the president and laugh at his jokes and be OK when he ridiculed my colleagues, to laugh along as people shouted ‘Lock her up’ or ‘Send them back,’” he says. “I couldn’t do it.”

with his family in 2018; Photo courtesy Flake family
with his family in 2018; Photo courtesy Flake family
Spear Fishing and Academia

Democrats, in general, are not inclined to give Flake any points for bucking his party when, according to different studies, he voted in alignment with Trump’s stances anywhere from 80 to 92 percent of the time. Democrats could not forgive him for voting to kill Obamacare or to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, regardless of the allegations of Kavanaugh’s inappropriate behavior with women.

Even Flake’s holding out for a limited FBI investigation of Kavanaugh was dismissed by Dems as a fig leaf.

That’s the view of local Democratic activist and pundit Donna Gratehouse of the Democratic Diva blog. She grants that Flake may be a “decent human being who cares about his family,” but never saw him as a moderate when it came to his voting record.

But doesn’t it help to have a deeply conservative senator like Flake oppose Trump, even if he still adheres to the conservatism the left abhors?

eyeing a rebound during his lone pickup game with President Barack Obama, 2009; Photo courtesy Commons.Wikimedia.org
eyeing a rebound during his lone pickup game with President Barack Obama, 2009; Photo courtesy Commons.Wikimedia.org

For Gratehouse and like-minded liberals, the answer is no. “[Never-Trumpers] are like the third nipple of politics,” she says. “As in, useless…Their problem is Trump’s behavior, his crudeness. I get that, but they don’t really oppose him on any policies.”

So, Flake remains on his political island in the South Seas, so to speak. And as things go, even if Trump is not reelected, he may never get off it.

Still, it’s not like he’s spear-fishing to survive, though he does reprise his stints on deserted islands from time. He’s got a cool recurring gig as a commentator with CBS, and is welcome in places like Harvard, on the lecture circuit and in the corporate world.

Moreover, as Trump’s rise itself attests, America’s political landscape is hardly static.

Would he ever consider returning to civic life, if the tectonic plates of politics jolt back into normality?

He pauses, smiles.

“After the fever cools.”

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